Storm Chaser Accounts
On any given spring severe weather day across the Plains, highways and county roads near potentially tornadic supercells are likely to be clogged with dozens of storm chasers, all of whom are trying to catch a glimpse of Mother Nature's power. The number of storm chasers has increased dramatically since 1991, primarily due to advances in mobile technology - allowing anyone to receive radar data and other weather information almost anywhere - and movies and television series, such as Twister and Storm Chasers. On April 26, 1991, researchers, off-duty National Weather Service meteorologists, private meteorologists, and weather hobbyists alike - although their numbers fewer than present day - combed the Plains in expectation of a big storm day. Very few went home without seeing a tornado. Here are their stories.
Note: The following article on the University of Oklahoma research chase team's experiences from the evening of April 26, 1991, appeared in the Tuesday, April 30, 1991, issue of the Tulsa World.
OU Tornado Trackers Had Front-Row Seats
By John Klein, World Staff Writer
Friday was the “most active evening” tornado tracker Howie Bluestein has seen.
Conditions were ripe for a “major outbreak” of tornadoes, and Bluestein, along with three other researchers from the University of Oklahoma, was ready.
About 6 p.m. Bluestein said, “The storms just went sort of crazy. The size and intensity of the storms were remarkable.”
The system spawned an estimated 71 tornadoes that ripped through six states, as far north as Iowa and south to Texas.
Up to 18 tornadoes reportedly touched down in Oklahoma, including two major twisters that leveled parts of four towns in northeastern Oklahoma. The tornadoes reached F-4 strength, the second-greatest possible, in Skiatook and left F-4-type damage in Pawnee County, the National Weather Service said Monday evening.
An F-4 tornado is characterized by 207-260 mph winds, Steve Parker with the weather service said. “About 2 percent of them reach F-4,” Parker said. “They’re very, very rare.”
Bluestein, a professor of meteorology at OU who specializes in the study of tornadoes, had a front-row seat to watch nature’s fury.
Bluestein had his van loaded with equipment by Thursday. Included was a portable Doppler radar.
With a television crew from Tulsa trailing behind, Bluestein, two graduate students and one undergraduate student began their search for tornadoes.
Weather data indicated the “perfect combination” for an outbreak of tornadoes, Bluestein said.
“Sometimes we believe conditions are ripe for tornadoes and it doesn’t happen,” said Bluestein. “This time the factors were very strong. I felt very strongly that we would have tornadoes. The conditions were remarkable.”
Bluestein said Friday’s weather over the Midwest was highlighted by a strong upper-level storm system.
“We had unusual cold weather in that upper-level system along with unusually strong winds aloft. In combination, we had a warm moist Gulf front closer to the ground. What made this all so unusual was the intensity of the upper-level system. It was the strongest possible indicator of what was about to happen.”
About 20 times each spring, when conditions look ripe for tornadoes, Bluestein and his research unit head out over the state in search of twisters.
This time, Bluestein felt confident that the research van would find a tornado.
Yet, for most of Friday, the researchers and television crew found little other than funnel clouds hovering over the wheat fields of Garfield, Kay and Noble counties.
At about 6 p.m., near Billings in northern Noble County, the researchers spotted a tornado on the ground.
“We positioned ourselves to be as close as possible but out of the path of the tornado,” said Bluestein. “It was an incredible experience.
“We’ve seen this same pattern before where the tornadoes start to form and touch down around 6 p.m. I don’t know if there was a windshift or what caused the storms to start producing tornadoes at 6. But it is interesting that this isn’t the first time that tornadoes waited until about 6 to start touching down.”
For the next 45 minutes, the two vehicles tracked the tornado across Noble County. Staying about 1,500 yards away from it, the crews were able to record pictures and data as the tornado grew larger and intensified.
Researchers can normally gather data about a tornado from as far away as four miles, Bluestein said.
From Billings, the tornado drifted northeast to near the small settlement of Ceres and then to Red Rock. By the time the storm reached Red Rock, it was nearly a half-mile wide.
“It was on the ground the whole time,” said Bluestein. “That was one of the surprises for me. I always felt that long-track tornadoes were a series of tornadoes, dropping down for stints of about 20 minutes. But this one stayed on the ground, growing larger and more intense as it went.
“It will be interesting to study this data because we will be able to gauge how the tornado intensified or didn’t intensify as it grew larger.”
Storm data was being examined by researchers Monday.
“Right now I couldn’t tell you exactly how intense that particular tornado was because we haven’t computed all of the data,” said Bluestein. “However, I listened to part of it on the radar and can assure you that tornado was especially intense.”
I was working the "G" shift on this day, and for several days it had looked like a good severe weather day. I had been storm chasing a couple times in Iowa previously, but having just moved to Tulsa the previous December, had not yet had the opportunity to go chasing in Oklahoma. Since I was getting off at 2, well before any storm development, I planned on chasing this day with Andy Patrick, who at the time was also a NWS Tulsa forecaster.
Andy and I departed Tulsa around 2:30 pm and headed west towards Enid, which was our initial target area. We were there by around 4:30, and since nothing was happening yet, we just stayed in that general vicinity for 30-45 minutes, until we visually saw 2 storm developing...one to our northwest and one to our southwest. Since we anticipated the storms to move northeast, we headed towards the more southern storm, eventually arriving in the town of Ames, in eastern Major County, where we observed dime to quarter size hail.
We followed this storm for a short time, but were getting frustrated that no tornado warnings had yet been issued on any storm. Eventually, a tornado warning was issued for the storm to our north, and being the inexperienced chasers we were, we jumped on that and left the southern storm to try and catch the tornado warned storm to the north.
We raced north, but quickly realized that we were never going to catch that storm as it was moving too quickly to the northeast. So we decided to head back to our original storm, but wanted to avoid the traffic of Enid, so we headed north to Highway 60 and then turned east on 60 and figured we would be in a good position as the storm moved northeast towards Highway 60. By this time, a tornado warning had been issued on this storm as well.
We headed east on Highway 60 to Interstate 35, and the tornadic part of the storm was still to our south at this time. We weren't sure how far south it was, and decided to head south on I-35 about 3 miles to the next exit south of Highway 60. We got to this exit, and figured it was not safe enough to continue south since the next exit was 8 miles south, and it was possible that the tornadic part of the storm was closer than 8 miles away. So we retreated back north of Highway 60 and continued east to Ponca City, where we stopped and waited awhile. This is when it became evident to us that the storm was moving more east than northeast. We eventually dropped southeast to Fairfax, where we encountered tornado damage on the north side of town.
Meanwhile, another tornadic storm had developed further to the south, and given the road networks in the area, this storm was the one we decided to head after. We continued southeast to Hominy, and arrived there about the same time a tornado was hitting the small town of Westport, which was a few miles to our south. Darkness was approaching at this time, but we calculated that we could reach Skiatook before the storm did, so we headed east on Highway 20 out of Hominy.
About 3 miles west of Skiatook, traffic had stopped ahead of us on Highway 20. At first, we were not sure why, but we quickly realized that a tornado had just crossed the road ahead of us and was heading northeast into the northwest part of Skiatook. Within a couple minutes, lightning illuminated the tornado and we just stood beside the car watching the tornado for about 5 minutes. We saw the tornado lift, and found a phone to call the Tulsa NWS and let them know what we had just witnessed.
Our adrenaline level was high at this point, and being that I had to work another "G" shift in the morning, we decided to just head back home rather than continue to follow the storm. As we turned south out of Skiatook on Highway 11, numerous emergency vehicles were heading north into town. We arrived back in Tulsa and heard that the north side of Oologah had been hit by a large tornado.
This was the first tornado I had ever seen, and while I was excited about this, I lamented the fact that we were in perfect position to follow the large Red Rock tornado through its whole life cycle, but blew it by panicking and heading north towards the first tornado warned storm. We should have stayed south and followed the storm from Ames all the way to Fairfax.
- Mark Plate, National Weather Service Tulsa lead forecaster
I was working the “I” surface shift at WSO OKC (interns pooled at both WSO OKC and WFO OUN back then) and the lead in OUN [Norman] didn't need me to hang around. So I left the office shortly after 4 armed with a Rand McNally and a knowledge that the storms over Woods and Major counties were struggling but starting to go upscale, got some money, and fought the rush hour traffic out of OKC. Drove up I-35 to US412 in the grunge, turned west toward END [Enid], and popped out of the stratus just east of END in time to see the Woodring tornado touchdown to my northwest. What became the Red Rock tornado touched down shortly thereafter. I doubled back to OK74, then north to Garber. I remember sitting in my car in Garber watching the Red Rock tornado get bigger and bigger, getting shelled by golfballs, and generally having no clue what to do next when another group of chasers (Mark Shafer was one of them) pulled up alongside me for a few seconds, long enough to show me they had a set of precious county road maps! They turned east and I then followed those guys (and the tornado) on a combination of state and federal highways and county section line roads until we lost the tornado as it crossed US177 just before sunset south of PNC [Ponca City]. OHP had closed 177 to let the vortex cross the highway and we knew that was it, given the road situation and the fact that Red Rock was moving east at close to 50 mph. After checking on a destroyed house off of 177 for survivors, we popped up to PNC, then west for dinner at McDonalds on the interstate. Essentially we rode under the south flank of the Red Rock storm for about an hour, a true Lagrangian frame chase!
We saw the squall line light up to our northwest along the cold front and, not wanting to deal with that, started south and back to Norman. I recall watching the line build south along the front faster than I could drive (65 mph was the speed limit then) from the Mulhall exit south to Edmond, where the line hit us with hail and sub-severe winds. Very (eerily) reminiscent of what happened 4/26/84 with supercells ahead of a linear system that later became discrete and hosing the Tulsa CWA [county warning area].
I remember hearing the roar of Red Rock a few times, and one time we popped north on a section line road to get in front of the vortex only to be chased south a few section lines. I recall meeting Bunting and Andra after stopping (they eventually headed east), then watching in amazement as a chaser (Gene Moore) drove south ... on the section line we just came south on, just beating the vortex as it crossed the road a mile or so north of us. His eyes were the size of pie plates! Of course we didn't know what had happened up the road at Wellington or Andover [Kansas] until we got back and watched it on CNN.
First time I'd seen horizontal vortex rolls before. The whole storm was the tornado, something we couldn't perceive because we were just too close.
- Brian Curran, (current) National Weather Service Midland/Odessa Science and Operations Officer
Note: The following chase account was originally printed in the May-June 1992 issue of Stormtrack magazine. The author gave the National Weather Service permission to use the account here.
By Tim Marshall
The morning of April 26, 1991 dawned cloudy and windy. It looked like a dreary, rainy day in Dallas, Texas. I awoke to the sound of the window screens rattling the south side of my house. Distant power lines howled in the stiff breeze. Little did I realize the clock was ticking down the seconds to disaster. I tuned to the A.M. Weather program on public television as I usually do on most chase mornings. A major storm system was forecast to strike the high plains. It was a classic severe weather situation with surface low pressure in eastern Colorado, and dryline extending southward into West Texas. I caught myself muttering the immortal words of the old talk show host Ed Sullivan: "looks like we have a really big show tonight". I was certain that Mother Nature had set the stage for the first tornado outbreak of the season.
With anticipation of the day's events, I already had checked my chase equipment. Cameras had been cleaned, film purchased, and batteries recharged. Chasers had telephoned to compare notes. My adrenaline was high and excitement was in the air. The big question was where would the storms form? The National Weather Service had forecasted a HIGH RISK of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes over much of the central and southern plains by afternoon. I began plotting hourly surface weather observations across Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas using a computer and information obtained from a weather date service. The best chance for tornadoes appeared to be in southern Kansas, a seven-hour drive ahead.
Now where do we go to chase? In the middle again? Sure! How about southern Kansas to northern Oklahoma? Actually, I chose southern Kansas since that area was in the direct path of the short wave, and it was closer to stronger upper air features. It was time to head north on I-35 from Dallas.
I called Carson Eads, my chase partner for today. Carson is a ham radio operator who has a custom "chasemobile" complete with two-meter and high frequency radio transceivers, portable weather station, and color television. A trailer towed behind the vehicle has a tapered metal stand welded to an old truck bed and is mounted with a rotating, telescopic antenna. I call it the "Eiffel tower". This antenna boosts reception so well that it allows us to hear the weather reports in the next state. Carson Eads, Phil Sherman, and Rich Herzog arrived at my house around 10 a.m., and we immediately departed northbound on Interstate 35. Crossing into Oklahoma, I got goose bumps listening to the first severe weather broadcast of the day:
"A potentially dangerous weather situation is developing across Oklahoma and Kansas today as a powerful storm system moves into the plain states. Moist, and very unstable air is moving rapidly northward into Oklahoma and will remain in place this afternoon. The dryline, marking the western edge of the moist air, has moved back to the northwest this morning across the Texas panhandle as gusty south to southeast winds continue across Oklahoma. The dryline will begin moving eastward by about midday as strong upper level winds of over 100 miles per hour swing around the south side of the storm system and into the southern and central plains. By early afternoon, thunderstorms are expected to develop rapidly along and ahead of the dryline across western Oklahoma and spread into central Oklahoma by late afternoon and early evening. It is emphasized that this is a potentially dangerous weather situation for much of Oklahoma. Extreme instability and the expected winds aloft indicate the potential for a significant severe weather outbreak later today including the possibility of very destructive tornadoes. Residents are urged to take this situation seriously..."
Was that strong wording or what? Our chase team arrived in Norman, Oklahoma around 1 pm, and stopped briefly to top off the gas tank, grab some groceries, and swing by the National Severe Storms Lab for a peak at the latest satellite picture. Ah, a cluster of thunderstorms had developed in northwest Oklahoma (Woods County). Within minutes, a tornado watch had been issued for a large portion of Oklahoma and Kansas. I was especially concerned about the high-level cirrus cloud cover overhead, so Carson and I headed north into Kansas where clear skies prevailed. Phil and Rich hung back in northern Oklahoma since they had to get back to work the next day.
Crossing the Kansas border around 4pm, I sighted the first storms developing to the west. However, the storm tops were being ripped apart by strong wind shear. The radar display on the portable television showed a line of cells extending southwestward to the Oklahoma border. A severe thunderstorm warning had been issued for the storm at the southern end of the line, a position chasers frequently call "tail end charlie".
We exited the Interstate south of Wichita and headed west to tail end charlie. The sky was milky white, a thick haze prevailed bleached by the sun. At 5pm, a severe thunderstorm warning was reissued for the county just to our west. (Only later did we find out that chaser Jim Leonard had filmed the first tornado of the series near Anthony, Kansas). As we approached Argonia, Kansas the sky darkened and a rain free cloud base came into view. My mood changed to a more positive note. I could see a ragged, turbulent cloud base with a tail cloud extending off to the north. In an instant, I knew the storm structure was classic for tornadoes. White-hot lightning bolts zagged through the darkened blue sky in increasing tempo. "No question we could have something here", I said.
We pulled off the road and grabbed our video cameras. There was a stiff east wind, and pea to marble-size hail was falling. I focused my attention towards the wrapping rain curtains to our southwest. Black clouds boiled in what appeared to be time lapse motion. "We are going to have a tornado here", I exclaimed. Sure enough, at 5:15pm, an elephant trunk shaped funnel dipped towards the ground. Immediately, the sirens sounded in nearby Argonia. My heart rate quickened and breathing became shallow. The tornado was headed right for us. Fortunately, the tornado was several miles distant and we kept the vehicle running for a possible quick escape. In picture perfect contrast, we began filming a black tornado against a white colored background. For ten minutes, we watched in awe before the tornado shrank in size and dissipated.
The storm was heading northeast on a direct course to Wichita. Local television stations were warning of the tornado we just witnessed. Radio scanners were buzzing with spotter reports of a new wall cloud gathering over the town of Conway Springs. There were no direct roads, and we lost valuable time by driving east then north. In the process, the storm beat us to the town. In order to keep pace with the storm, Carson and I knew we would have to enter "the bear's cage", which is the wrapping curtain of precipitation of the back edge of the storm which could cloak a tornado.
My hands grew cold as we entered the precipitation. Visibility was reduced and strong north winds buffeted our vehicle. My thoughts turned to the dramatic NSSL video of the chase team clearing the precipitation and seeing a tornado cross the road just in front of them. Within a few minutes, the road curved to the east and the rain ended. A large wall cloud had amassed on the east side of the town of Clearwater. A police car was in front of us leading the way. We passed through the town and came upon a large open field just east of the local school when the clouds came together and dipped toward the ground. Suddenly, condensation shot upward about a mile to our southeast. "Multi-vortex Tornado!", I shouted. Spotters immediately relayed their reports to the local National Weather Service.
The tornado crossed the road in front of us heading northbound and struck a house. The roof disintegrated and a plume of attic insulation was sucked into the vortex appearing like smoke from a fire. In disbelief and anger, I witnessed the destruction of two more farmhouses. "Damn, another house just went down there", I muttered. Never had I felt so helpless knowing the other houses lay in the path in south Wichita.
Carving out a path of destruction, we watched the tornado strike residences in northwest Haysville and enter south Wichita. In seconds, homes were simply erased from their foundations. Broken plumbing lines created water geysers where there once stood homes. The tornado turned east striking McConnell Air Force Base just missing rows of fighter planes. We tried to keep pace with the tornado by getting on the Kansas turnpike to no avail. The tornado had toppled large power poles across the road in front of us and we could go no further. I resorted to watching people climb out of their crawl spaces only to walk around in shock and disbelief. In the distance, sirens of emergency vehicles were growing nearer.
Carson and I listened to the ham radio. The town of Andover was next. We could hear Wichita area spotters frantically calling ahead asking emergency officials to look to the southwest. A policeman in the town responded "We have it in sight". That was the last words I heard from Andover. Later we learned of police officers trying in vain to warn residents to seek shelter. With no operational sirens, one officer tried in vain to warn people at the Golden Spur Mobile Home park on the edge of town. Time ran out for many at 6:35pm, when the tornado plowed through the park obliterating hundreds of homes in seconds leaving scores of dead and injured. My worst fears had been realized.
Carson and I spent about an hour surveying the damage in south Wichita then we saw the Red Rock storm to the south and headed southeast to intercept it near Tulsa. We didn't reach the storm until dark, and decided to let it go. We stayed in Tulsa and then headed over to Red Rock the next day to conduct a damage survey.
If I remember correctly the power went out just before 5 PM at work. Apparently the tornado I would eventually see was responsible for the outage. Hearing that a tornado was spotted in southern Wabaunsee County, KS, I took KS99 South out of Wamego to I70. While climbing the east bound on ramp to I70 the top half of a slender tornado came into view. It was approximately 12 miles to my east. The damage path where the tornado crossed I70 consisted of downed trees and signs. About 1.5 miles northeast of where the tornado crossed I70 it struck a small church. After mowing off the top of the church it appeared that the tornado crashed into a steep hill at about the same elevation as the church’s roof.
Later, I overheard on my scanner via the Kansas Turnpike Repeater, an officer in Andover report that he couldn’t tell where he was at because all the landmarks were gone.
- Robert Herman